Also known as tetraplegia, quadriplegia is a medical and physical condition or a type of cerebral palsy of total or partial paralysis which affects the four limbs; arms and legs. Quadriplegia is often described as a loss of sensation and function from the shoulders downwards. Furthermore, it is typically associated with serious nerve damage which interferes with the normal performance of any number of muscles.
The Causes of Quadriplegia
Quadriplegia is a symptom of a damage inflicted directly to the brain or the spinal cord, most specifically the cervical spine (the neck). In the overwhelming majority of quadriplegia cases, such damage which is known as a lesion is caused by a severe trauma such as from a motor vehicle accident, a gunshot or a stab wound, a harsh blow, as well as a fall or a sports injury. However, damage to the brain or spinal cord which results in quadriplegia can also be caused by ailments such as polio, transverse myelitis, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, the Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) as well as tumors or cancers of the spine or the brain.
Levels of Quadriplegia
In cases of trauma, the gravity of the injury makes a significant difference. If the spinal cord is completely severed, the patient loses complete function of everything that is below the level of injury.
A limited severing or a bruising of the spinal cord causes partial functions and paralysis. If the injury is minor, the quadriplegic patient may lose some functions but may continue to walk and retain use of the hands. In some instances of partial or minor injuries, the quadriplegics may have the use of their arms but not their hands; or their legs but not their feet. In other instances, the quadriplegic may have lost the use of both arms and legs but maintains control of bowel, bladder and sexual functions. Furthermore, the functionality or lack of functionality is not necessarily symmetric or equal on both sides of the body.
Although most occurrences of quadriplegia have resulted from broken necks, not all broken necks results in quadriplegia, especially when the spinal cord was not damaged. However, the opposite is true as well. The spinal cord may be damaged without the neck being broken and thus result in quadriplegia.
An additional important fact is that in a small percentage of the quadriplegia cases, the nerves may be restored back to health and thus quadriplegia may be considered cured or reversed.
The Symptoms of Quadriplegia
Quadriplegia can and often does in fact involve more than just the arms and legs. Quadriplegia often affects the entire torso from the neck down which can impair the voluntary and the involuntary bodily functions such as the bowel and bladder control, sexual performance, the digestive process and the breathing mechanism as well as other autonomic functions. Quadriplegia patients or quadriplegics often experience abnormal sensations such as constant numbness, diminished or indistinguishable sensations, tingling, burning and neuropathic pain.
As a consequence of their reduced mobility, quadriplegia patients often experience a whole set of secondary symptoms such as pressure or bed sores, osteoporosis and fractures, frozen or stiffened joints, spasms caused by involuntary tightening and contracting of muscles, complications and infections of the respiratory system which can lead to ventilators dependency and cardiovascular disease.
Two life threatening secondary symptoms of quadriplegia are autonomic the dysreflexia (AD) and deep vein thrombosis (DVT). AD is a medical condition of an abnormally high sympathetic discharge which leads to a sudden rise of blood pressure accompanied by severe headaches, exaggerated sweating, facial erythema (extreme blushing), goose bumps, blockage of the nasal passages and irrational feelings of doom and anxiety. DVT is an inflammation which involves blood clotting in of the veins which are found deep within the body.
Treatment of Quadriplegia
There are approximately 5,000 newly injured cervical spinal cords which lead to quadriplegia every year in the United States alone. National statistics indicated that roughly US $6 billion per year is spent on medical treatments and rehabilitation of quadriplegic patients.
Treatments predominantly depend on the extent of the injury and each individual patient’s needs. For the most part, treatments focus on preventing further injury, on relieving symptoms of discomfort or pain and on returning quadriplegic patients to a life that is as functional and as productive as possible.